Here’s a brief rundown of my own experience with the songs from “Chinese Democracy”--I bought a bootleg CD of demos of the album two years ago in New York City in a retail store. The songs are mixed differently than the final product, of course, but they are the same songs. Around the same time I ordered DVD bootlegs of concerts that featured some of the new songs, some as old as Rock in Rio 3 from 2001. Guns N’ Roses played at least 3 or 4 of the new songs live when I saw them in December of 2006. Live versions of the new songs have also been available to listen to on YouTube. Nine mastered demos were leaked on the Internet in June of this year. Finally, just days before release, the band’s MySpace allowed you to stream the album in full.
“Chinese Democracy” may be comparable in some ways to the Beach Boys’ unreleased “Smile” album, which was intended to be the Beach Boys’ crowning achievement and which Brian Wilson described as “a teenage symphony to God.” During recording Wilson had a nervous breakdown and was unable to finish the album as originally conceived. In its place, the band released “Smiley Smile,” a work that fell short of public expectations but nonetheless hinted at brilliance. Brian Wilson finally finished and released “Smile” in 2004 as a solo project with the help of his touring band, the Wondermints. The “Smile” of 2004 is a stunning piece of work and was worth the wait.
With similar (unrealistic?) expectations “Chinese Democracy” is likely to suffer the same fate as “Smiley Smile”; both albums fall short in the public’s mind. With years and years of demo material to sift through, fans will always be left wondering if the album matches Axl’s original vision… and what is Axl’s vision, anyway? Would “Song X” have been better if the band had used guitar parts by Buckethead, as opposed to Bumblefoot? Were certain musical ideas lost in the production and mixing process? How would “Song X” have been different if Slash and Co. were still in the band? These questions are all interesting, but the album is finished and done.
Remember, though, that Brian Wilson would never have been able to complete “Smile” according to his original vision if the Beach Boys did not enjoy decades of continued commercial success. In pre-Internet times there was an intrinsic value placed on listening to and appreciating music as an art form. There is a sense now that purchasing music is an outdated concept. Why bother purchasing an album if you can hear it streamed on MySpace, here individual songs on YouTube, or even illegally download the entire album for free?
Buy “Chinese Democracy” because you are curious about how the final product sounds and because you and your friends have good-naturedly joked about its release for years. Buy it because Axl Rose is in some ways the Brian Wilson of our times, a brilliant songwriter and a reclusive perfectionist. Buy it simply because the album is banned in China and that you are happy to have the freedom to choose your own music. Hell, you can even buy it on vinyl and remember the sonic advantages of that outdated format.
According to former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, Axl has at least 2 more completed albums in the wings. It would be a shame to stifle one of the few geniuses in modern rock, all because we no longer believe in paying for music. And who knows? If “Chinese Democracy” doesn’t live up to your expectations, maybe someday Axl will reimagine the album, as Brian Wilson reimagined “Smile.” Stranger things have happened.